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Mike Harrington: Shifty eyes of Kane focus on a key year of his career

Let's rewind for a moment to draft weekend in Chicago.

Those couple of days have become a bigger swap meet for the NHL than the trade deadline, which has become nothing more than rentals on the move at often bargain prices. Evander Kane was clearly paying attention, knowing the chatter was out there he might be sent packing by the Buffalo Sabres now that Tim Murray was no longer his general manager.

So Kane played along, thanks to a couple of emojis on his buzzworthy Twitter account. First came a simple shifty eyes tweet. Then came an ear. Hmmmm. What did he know? Media in the United Center and fans on social media were rife with speculation. The two tweets -- without a single word in them -- got a combined total of more than 2,300 likes and more than 920 retweets.

His reaction the next day, when Kane also tweeted a picture from behind the screen at a Mariners-Astros game in Seattle, came complete with raised eyebrow and hand on the chin: "Tweet out something about charity get 10 retweets. Tweet out a single emoji get 1000 retweets. #trollin"

Kane got us all. There wasn't much of anything going on. His hometown Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings have long been rumored to be interested but weren't paying the kind of prices the Sabres were said to be asking. Still, entering the last year of his contract, Kane actually might be on the move when the trade deadline hits in late February.

But for now at least, the Sabres expect him to be a key piece to their offense. In this lineup, where Kane is the No. 1 left winger by a mile, he almost has to be.

When I asked him Thursday if he was surprised to still be a Sabre, a smirking and smiling Kane had a quick retort.

"Let me fire a question back: How much did you guys think I was getting moved after those eye tweets?" he said. "Quite a bit, quite a bit. I'm not one to talk about what I think about management or business decision-type issues. But I'm happy to be back.

"I knew I was going to get the reaction that I got. It was definitely on purpose. Sometimes I guess common sense doesn't always fall into the minds of a lot of people. I think I kept that going for a little bit over a week. It was fun."

Kane would do well to keep things light this year because as far as attention and storylines go on the Sabres, non-Jack Eichel contract division, Kane is going to be near the top of the list.

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The Sabres don't seem to be much interested in talking about any sort of new deal with Kane, who is entering the final season of the six-year, $31.5-million deal he signed with the Winnipeg Jets in 2012 at age 20.

But it's been said here before and is worth saying again: Kane is a unique player on this roster, the kind of power forward the Sabres don't have elsewhere and haven't had in many years. If you trade Kane, you're going to be looking for ... Kane.

Of course, you also have to worry about Kane's well-documented history of indiscretion. The Sabres will likely point out there's been nothing untoward about his behavior in 15 months. A cynic on another club might counter by saying something is overdue to happen.

What can't be argued is Kane's impact on the ice. Kane is by far the best option for the Sabres at left wing, which is easily the weakest position on their depth chart.

Kane had 25 of his 28 goals at even strength last year, a remarkable total for a Buffalo team that was 28th in the NHL with just 126 at 5-on-5 -- a pathetic average of 1.54 per game.  That means Kane had nearly 20 percent of the Sabres' 5-on-5 goals last year by himself!

Ten teams in the NHL had at least 160 goals at even strength and four more were over 150. The Sabres were a long way from those totals. Imagine what their offense would have looked like if they didn't lead the league in power-play percentage or finish tied for fourth in power-play goals.

Among NHL wingers, the only players ahead of Kane in 5-on-5 scoring were Carolina's Jeff Skinner and St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko (30 apiece), the trio of Chicago's Patrick Kane, Boston's Brad Marchand and Winnipeg's Patrik Laine (27), and the duo of New York Rangers speedster Michael Grabner and Montreal captain Max Pacioretty (26).

"I'm excited for Evander Kane," said new coach Phil Housley. "He's a big piece to the puzzle here in Buffalo. Just like all the other players, I'm excited to see where they're going to be at starting tomorrow and into the first exhibition game."

And when he hits the ice Friday in HarborCenter, Kane is essentially playing for the entire league this year and not just the Sabres. If he plays at the clip he did last year and the Sabres aren't in the playoff race, he would likely be the No. 1 rental on the market at the deadline.

"You're always playing for the league," he said. "No matter if you have an eight-year deal, a one-year deal. You're always trying to showcase yourself in the best way because that's not just going to help you. That's going to help your team.

"Nothing changes for me based on my approach to the game or my approach to this year with the contract coming to conclusion. I'm excited."

Sabres Notebook: Kane shutting out trade talk

As usual, it was a busy offseason for Kane and social media followed him every step of the way. There was a courtside seat for a Cavaliers-Raptors playoff game in Toronto and a similar high-rent district view of a Wizards-Celtics showdown in Boston. A golf tournament for the 10th anniversary of his 2007 Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants. A trip to Ontario cottage country in Muskoka. The Mayweather-McGregor fight in Las Vegas.

And on the day before he returned to Buffalo earlier this month, Kane posted a video of him passing out pizza and water to those in need on the Eastside section at home in Vancouver.

He's around town and around the globe plenty. It will be interesting to see if Housley and Botterill can get Kane to hang around his teammates more than Dan Bylsma and Murray could. And if Kane will be able to erase the stigma of not being a winning player.

Entering the season, only Buffalo teammate Zach Bogosian (534 games) and Carolina's Jeff Skinner (497) have played more games than Kane's 496 without making the postseason.

"I think my patience has worn out," he said of his playoff misses. "It's come to the point where you can't even think about that. You have to take it day by day and month by month."

Or, when it comes to social media, minute by minute. Watching for the next set of shifty eyes.

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